“It was like, holy crap, our customers aren’t 22-year-olds who are rebellious and against The Man. Our customers are The Man”
Fan Bi, Co-Founder
Born in London, raised in Babson, built in Boston
With its origins as a rebellious project by two college dropouts to design custom clothes for urban hipsters, Blank Label soon evolved to one of the most successful and fastest growing menswear stores in the US.
Blank Label is a Boston-based custom menswear boutique that promises high quality, custom-made products with a fit guarantee delivered directly to its customers. Inspired by a trip to Turnbull & Asser during a summer banking internship in London, Fan Li along with his co-founder Danny Wong started Blank Label in 2009 as an online custom shirt business – their goal: to deliver quality and customisation at accessible prices.
Within a year, the site was turning over six figures of revenue and was nearing profitability. At this point they discovered they weren’t reaching the original target market of young, rebellious hipsters. Instead, they had developed a core base of 35-45 year old white collar men who appreciated high quality and bespoke fit.
Through 2011 Blank Label focused on this customer, remaining a purely online e-commerce platform with a direct-to-consumer shipping model. They were turning over $1.1m in sales across a 20,000 strong customer base and with no external funding.
Despite tremendous growth, Li and Wong felt Blank Label’s potential was inhibited by its operating model. Currently, they could only reach customers who were willing to interact solely online with a relatively unknown brand. They knew was a very small piece of a much bigger pie – as Li explained:
Guys really understood the value proposition right away. They totally got it. “My shirts never fit. I have to run right now, but where’s your store?” We said no store yet, you can buy online. Their expression changed from excitement to confusion.
Their next move was to evolve into a hybrid offline and online business, opening their first pattern room in Boston in 2013. This had the dual intention of overcoming the first-time-customer barrier of doing everything online and providing an in-person outlet through which they could communicate their value proposition directly to consumers.
Fulfilling the customer promise through operations design
Li describes his influencing philosophy as “me-commerce” – using Blank Label as a platform for customers to take the reins in designing their wardrobes. Coupling this experience with competitive prices, they are looking to fill a void in the US menswear market. Li and Wong have kept this customer promise as a guiding influence to design their operations.
There is a great dichotomy between Blank Label’s personalised and opulent in-store experience, and its incredibly lean and efficient back-end operations. Every fitting starts online, where you schedule a 30 minute appointment with a personal tailor. You are greeted in store and seated on a comfortable leather chesterfield, offered a drink and asked a few questions – the tailor’s job is not only to measure you up, but also to understand your clothing needs. Next, you’re carefully measured up – every Blank Label shirt offers nine points of custom measurement. Finally you’re guided through a curated selection of fabrics – your tailor punches your order into her iPad, you swipe your credit card and within seven days your shirt is delivered to your doorstep. If it doesn’t fit just right, the shirt is either replaced or altered until it does.
In order to deliver this high quality experience at an accessible price, Blank Label does everything it can to optimise its operations – starting with manufacturing. By contracting directly with tailors in Shanghai, Blank Label has cut out the middle man. Despite growing up in Australia, Li’s family roots are in Shanghai, providing a connection which simplified dealings with their offshore suppliers. This move has been a huge driver of customer value – while tailors on London’s Jermyn Street will typically charge £180 ($270) for bespoke shirts, Blank Label charges $95 (including shipping).
When it comes to choosing a fabrics and prints, customers are not inundated with dozens of books of fabric swatches – instead, they are provided with a curated selection of fabrics based on the type of shirt (formal or casual) and the season. This refined selection has the dual benefit of reducing raw materials costs and simplifying the decision making process for customers. This also allows Blank Label to pre-select fabrics that allow them to charge a constant price for each product – every shirt is $95, every chino is $125, every base suit is $575.
This constant and simple pricing structure is also supported by the fact that all of Blank Label’s garments are custom, meaning they keep zero inventory anywhere. No inventory means no inventory stock piles and no need to slash prices.
Where to from here…
Blank Label has built a strong operating base upon which to grow. Today, they have two permanent pattern rooms – the original store in downtown Boston and a newer store on K Street in DC. They test expansion into new markets through temporary pop up stores – easily facilitated through their lean in-store requirements. The current plan is to open up to six permanent stores on the East Coast over the next 1-2 years. As he looks to the future, Li describes their biggest area of investment as refining and developing their retail model.
In-store interview with tailor (Boston, 04-Dec-2015).